Saturday 18 November 2017

John Greene: Taking a stand against culture of indifference


Paris will host the 2020 European Indoor Athletics
Paris will host the 2020 European Indoor Athletics
John Greene

John Greene

When the Irish women's football team faced the media in Liberty Hall last Tuesday morning, it felt like another of those line-in-the-sand moments in Irish sport. It was soon being talked about in some quarters in the same breath as Saipan, and stories of players having to change out of their tracksuits in public toilets at Dublin Airport and hand them back led to widespread condemnation. It became international news.

Within 48 hours, the FAI and their flagship women's team had reached an agreement, and the great pity is that having put their cause - and that of all women in the same situation - so firmly in the spotlight, they agreed to a confidentiality clause as part of the deal. Leaks later told us that they were happy, that they had got what they wanted, but why the secrecy?

Ethel Buckley of SIPTU described it as a "landmark agreement". Unfortunately, we'll have to take her word for it because of that confidentiality agreement. Having taken a courageous step, surely the players had earned the right to shout from the rooftops about their achievement; and, it could have been more empowering for those battling against stereotype and gender discrimination in sport.

Many commentators latched on to the players' actions as representing a significant moment in the fight to improve the standing of women in sport. But the subsequent fall-out failed to address in any meaningful way the real problems faced by women's sport in Ireland. A lot of tired arguments were trotted out, chief among them being, 'if it means that much to you, why don't you go and watch them play?' If that was to be our baseline for how we view sport, then the League of Ireland and the All-Ireland League would have been done away with years ago. It misses the point that organised sport does not exist for those who watch it; it exists primarily for those who play it. This essential truth has been diluted through the years by the capitalist ideals which have become attached to sport, and which try to tell us that the only sport that really matters is that which generates revenue.

There are far more opportunities for girls to engage with sport now than ever before, and studies have shown that the gender gap in participation is narrowing (although this is in part due to a slight decline in the number of males who are physically active). Yet many of the old obstacles still remain.

"The events of the past two days amount to a short, sharp and successful campaign to advance the rights of women in sport," said Ethel Buckley on Thursday. "They are also a reminder that in any area of modern Irish society women should never accept being treated as second-class citizens."

For most people involved in women's sport the only real surprise at what the Irish team had to say last week was that they are facing the same problems at international level that those involved all the way down to their local club are facing day in, day out; that they too are victims of a system of indifference which runs so deep that a lot of people don't even notice it anymore.

All over the country this weekend, coaches of female teams will have been frustrated in attempts to play games in their chosen sports - there might have been difficulty accessing a pitch at their local club because all the available times have been allocated to male teams; there might have been difficulty having enough players because competing sports have fixed games at the same time, or because parents have differing priorities for their daughters than they do for their sons, or for myriad other reasons which lead to women's sport always lagging behind.

More girls drop out of sport in their teenage years than boys; more teenage girls drop out of sport in the two big exam years than boys; and the pattern continues into adulthood. It seems that on every step of life's journey the odds are more against females becoming involved in sport, with dated attitudes starting in the home, and then extending beyond it. The Irish Sports Monitor in 2015 noted that "parents of daughters have a less favourable opinion of their child's sporting ability than parents of sons".

It adds: "It is clear that a gender differential in terms of sport is being introduced from an early age. The extent to which this influences the gender differential in adult participation in sport is unclear. It can only be assumed that if gender stereotypes are being instilled in childhood, lower levels of exposure to sport may negatively affect later sports participation."

On top of that, coaches and organisers of sport for girls are more likely to drift away from the sport out of frustration than those involved with male sport, where conditions tend to be significantly better. These coaches and organisers are a mix of men and women: the Camogie Association, for instance, has more female than male administrators, but it has more male than female coaches and match officials.

One of the major stumbling blocks for women remains the attitude of the GAA, FAI and IRFU - the three organisations which so dominate the Irish sporting landscape. This is not to say that there aren't efforts being made by all three for greater female involvement in their organisations, because there are, but they continue to fall a long way short of what it should be. Gaelic football and hurling, for instance, remain the only publicly-funded sports still divided on gender basis, with three separate bodies in charge. Yes, this is not solely the fault of the GAA but it is not stretching the point to suggest that the lion's share of responsibility for unifying all three rests with it.

Then there is the attitude of the so-called Big Three to gender quotas. The FAI and the IRFU, when asked about gender quotas, have both invoked the term 'tokenism'. The GAA is not in favour either. Paraic Duffy told an Oireachtas committee recently that the Association is successfully encouraging greater levels of female participation in administration and that "a better balance of gender membership will occur naturally in the coming years".

The IRFU's Philip Browne told the same committee that "female rugby is still in its infancy and it will be difficult to find suitably-qualified female candidates with the accumulated rugby wisdom and skill-set to fill such quotas without retreating towards tokenism". This seems tantamount to saying that women don't really belong in a rugby man's world. Browne added: "I suggest that the evidence shows that regardless of the fact that the emergence of the women's game has not yet been matched by the emergence of women with the accumulated skills and desire to work their way through the democratic structures of Irish rugby, the IRFU has in no way inhibited the development and growth of the women's game."

Really? How many women who might harbour an aspiration to get involved with their local rugby club will think twice having been told that they don't have the skill-set or desire to make the kind of contribution so valued of their male counterparts? The fact that all three organisations have had over a century each already to achieve a better balance appears to be lost on them. Where is the evidence that the situation will improve naturally, without the imposition of gender quotas?

In the meantime, the show goes on. The news cycle has moved on too since Thursday's agreement; the public's gaze has been diverted elsewhere. It would be nice to think that the stand taken by the players last week will make some kind of difference, but we've been down this road before. We need to stop looking around for someone to blame and start taking responsibility ourselves, beginning in our own homes.

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